Watching Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life was one of the most unique movie-going experiences I have had. I concur with Roger Ebert's comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey, though the similarity can really only be drawn to the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite sequence of Kubrick's masterpiece. There is a floating elliptical quality to the style of that last half-hour in 2001 that runs throughout the entirety of Tree of Life. This style allows Malick to dispense with conventional narrative plot and tell the story in a manner that is best described as Impressionistic. I've seen a lot of filmmakers employ surrealism to tell a story, but this is the first example of an American Impressionist film that I've seen.
The movie begins with scenes showing the reactions of a mother, Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reading a telegram and a father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) trying to listen to a co-worker over the roar of airplanes taking off. As an audience, we do not get to see or hear exactly what they are reacting to. While there is a smooth fluidity to Emmanuel Lubezki's artful cinematography, Malick doesn't seem to linger longer than a minute. The result is that film has a mosaic quality where every shot adds up to tell the larger story while letting the viewer fill in the narrative gaps with their own impressions. I got the impression that their child had been killed. Through the fantastic period detail from Jack Fisk's production design, I got the impression that he may have been killed in Vietnam. I might be wrong, but I think Malick's intent is that these minute details are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life. What does matter within the focus of the film is the grief and longing of those who loved this person and how his passing leads them to ponder the deeper philosophical questions regarding just what this life we possess is really about.
It is right about the time these questions pop up that the movie visually departs from the scenes of the O'Brien family in mid 20th century, their son Jack (Sean Penn) reflecting on his life several decades later, and is literally absorbed by the cosmos. We enter into an illustration of life in its most elemental and explosive beginnings, zigzagging from supernovas and volcanoes to the tiniest zygote. The visual tapestry not only traverses space but also time. When we come back to Earth, we recognize a lush landscape of oceans, mountains and, of course, trees, but instead of human activity, the dominant animal is the dinosaur. The dinosaur was the top of the food chain in their time, just as humans are in our time. What caused this paradigm shift? It is to Malick's credit that we get to visually witness the demise of the dinosaur. It is a scene that is short and simple, yet spectacular and shocking. Ultimately, the most profound effect it had on me is how humbling it was, how small humanity is in the vastness of the universe.
We return to the O'Brien family, it is in their hometown of Waco, Texas in the 1950's where Jack is now a young boy (Hunter McCracken, brilliant debut). Through his eyes, we see life unfold through joyful play in the backyard to stoic respect in the church. It's no surprise that in a movie that explores the deeper philosophical questions of the human condition that there is a spiritual dimension involved. It seems to lurk in between what Mrs. O'Brien observes about the balance between nature and grace that humanity rests on. Within her character, we see that spiritual balance through a love for animals (nature), in her admonishment of Jack for abusing one, and her capacity for forgiveness (grace), as she accepts Jack's request not to tell his father of his transgression. Mr. O'Brien is a stern disciplinarian, but not an unfeeling one. We see the roots of his struggle as he strives vainly to climb the ladder at his job when the only peace he seems to get is when at the end of the day or on the weekend, he can play the piano. There is a beautiful, heartbreaking subtlety to Brad Pitt's performance that captures the quiet desperation of a suburban dad who views his life in terms of failure. All he ever wanted to be was a musician but, in his own words or warning to his son, he got "sidetracked". He doesn't want his boys to repeat his mistake in their lives, so he tries constantly to keep them tough and wary of a world he sees as just wanting to tear you down if you're weak.
Throughout the movie, Malick employs the voiceover as a means of advancing the story, but in a very unique way. Often, we hear brief whispers, sometimes providing emotional insight into what we visually see, sometimes expressing questions about events we have yet to witness. This is one of the reasons why, as much as I loved and was overwhelmed by this movie, I would love to see it again. Sometimes the whispers were too soft and brief and I missed what was trying to be conveyed. But the emotional journey of this film is so layered that I think what I missed in words was conveyed in images. The spiritual dimension hinted at in earlier scenes is brought to the forefront as the movie reaches a conclusion. A good filmmaker might attempt to answer the big philosophical questions but a great filmmaker, which I think Malick is, allows the viewer to find their own answers. I walked out of the theater filled with a wonder of the universe, a love for humanity, and an intense desire to go home and give my wife a hug. As I opened the door to my house, the intensity built as I walked up the stairs toward our bedroom, only to dissipate as I entered the bedroom and found my wife lying on the floor dead.
I'm just kidding. Actually, it was my wife who was kidding, playing a practical joke on me. We shared a silly laugh, but it made me realize that's one emotional area Malick doesn't really explore: humor. As serious as life and death issues are, I think humanity would collapse under the weight of that seriousness if it wasn't for our capacity to mock ourselves and laugh at the absurdity of life. It's a minor quibble in the context of a profound film, but an important one in the context of a profound existence.